Perception can be everything. We as an industry need to not only change perception, but change many of the ways we operate. It is past the time to begin.
Gavin Newsom, the Governor of California had this to say prior to the fatal accident at Santa Anita this past Saturday, resulting in the euthanizing of Emtech:
“What happened last year was unacceptable, and all of the excuses be damned, We own that going into the next season, and we’re going to have to do something about it. I’ll tell you, talk about a sport whose time is up unless they reform. That’s horse racing. Incredible abuses to these precious animals and the willingness to just to spit these animals out and literally take their lives is a disgrace.”
Newsom also took specific aim at the CHRB, saying he was:
“pulling away from those with direct conflicts and pulling out a more objective oversight capacity.”
Newsom was obviously referring to CHRB members who are horse owners and breeders or otherwise have a vested and or financial interest in the sport and California racing. It is difficult to argue on any level this is not a clear conflict of interest.
Prior to the last CHRB meeting, Newsom appointed the politically connected Wendy Mitchell to the board. This is the same Wendy Mitchell who served for more than five years on the powerful California Coastal Commission, which makes land-use decisions for the state’s 1,100 miles of coastland, while working as a consultant for a number of companies who did business in front of that commission. It is also the same Wendy Mitchell with a colorful past and history. What she brings to the board remains to be seen, especially in regard to eliminating the status quo and inherent conflict which resides there. That aside, it is clear California racing in on the radar screen leading up to the Breeders’ Cup championships to be held at Santa Anita later this year.
As for Emtech, it was a tragic accident. Despite Santa Anita’s new protocol designed and implemented to minimize on track accidents and injuries, Emtech slipped by even with a history of a voided claim and being on the Vet’s list for several months.
The Stronach Group which owns Santa Anita released this statement following the accident:
“The Stronach Group and Santa Anita safety measures put horse and rider safety above all else. There is an expected level of safety and accountability that is required to participate at a Stronach Group racetrack. If anything less is found which could have contributed to this incident, it will be addressed immediately. Santa Anita and The Stronach Group remain committed to leading transformative change in this traditional sport.”
Emtech won a $75,000 maiden claimer for then trainer Simon Callaghan in his debut, a race in which he was claimed out of. The claim was voided however, consistent with California rules when the horse was placed on the Vet’s list. That race was back on October 6th, 2018. Emtech failed a workout on October 29th, 2018 which had he passed would have had him removed from the Vet’s list. Emtech was given time off until May of 2019 and passed the required five furlong workout to be removed from the Vet’s list on June 20th, 2019.
Emtech was on the panel’s special examination list for races July 6 at Los Alamitos and Aug. 8 at Del Mar. He was claimed in the Aug. 8 start for $25,000 by trainer Steve Knapp, and came back to run second, and then win a pair of starter allowance races at Del Mar and then Los Alamitos.
After passing five examinations and racing successfully for those races, he was not flagged by the panel for any review or special attention in his subsequent races other than normal required pre-race examinations. In the eighth race last Saturday, September 28th, 2019 Emtech broke down in the stretch fracturing both front legs. He was, as we know, sadly and unfortunately euthanized.
The somewhat rigid and pioneering, at least in the US, protocol adopted by Santa Anita failed to prevent this tragedy. While the horse did indeed have a history, he had been given time, and had run, apparently sound, without incident enough times to reasonably conclude he was “OK.” Accidents happen, and racing can be inherently dangerous for both the equine and human competitors. The timing of this one was horrendous for Santa Anita, the industry , and even the Breeders’ Cup which has to be watching, but no timing for these tragedies is right.
As an industry, we have to come together and possibly improve and evolve in two areas. The protocols Santa Anita introduced should be studied and improved upon as we learn and grow. Maybe a horse with a history like Emtech should be monitored throughout their entire career. Would that have stopped this incident? Probably not but it may stop one in the future. We all know the story about the boy and the Starfish on the beach. We also need to better educate those outside our sport who are looking in, like the Governor of California. Show those who don’t really know the game that we are doing all that can be done from breeding practices, training practices, and racing to keep things as safe as possible. We need to be able to demonstrate that we are actually doing it not just talking it. It is vital for the sport and it is not happening in any organized or uniform fashion.
Just because as an industry or as individuals we do not like or respect PETA doesn’t mean they can’t be on the right side of an argument. Their agendas, hidden or otherwise do not impact their stance on any given issue, nor do they take away from their reach and influence. Simply bashing them is not a defense of the sport of horse racing. Horse racing needs to pay attention to that. That many of us love the horses and treat them well is also not a defense. We need to make sure all are treated kindly, and we must totally eradicate anyone from the sport who fails to do this with a zero tolerance policy. We need to be fair but firm in this. It is essential for racing.
Jonathan Stettin #P6K